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MoMA Learning Community Spotlight: Phaedra Mastrocola at Berkeley Carroll Lower School, Brooklyn
Visual Arts teacher Phaedra Mastrocola works with 2nd and 4th graders at Berkeley Carroll Lower School, Brooklyn

Visual Arts teacher Phaedra Mastrocola works with second- and fourth-graders at Berkeley Carroll Lower School, Brooklyn

One driving metaphor behind MoMA Learning—the museum’s digital hub for educational resources on modern and contemporary art—was that of a “tool box” or “kit”—an assemblage of parts that could be used, shared, and modified for a variety of learning environments and styles. Like all educators, we in the Department of Education at MoMA have witnessed thrilling changes in the landscape of learning over recent years—a global shift (especially at the university level) towards broadening access to educational resources through massive open online courses (MOOCS) like MIT OpenCourseWare and non-profit resource hubs like the Khan Academy. We hope to foster and encourage this DIY-learning ethos through MoMA Learning.

Each MoMA Learning theme is accompanied by free, downloadable resources—including worksheets, slideshows, media, and text. We expect that many users—as busy as they are—will download and use these resources as they are. But we also believe in the creativity and talents of the MoMA Learning community—and have been waiting to see the unexpected ways in which people make use of this basic kit of parts.

Student artwork created in response to Pablo Picasso's guitar constructions

Student artwork created in response to Pablo Picasso’s guitar constructions

Needless to say, we were excited when we caught wind of the amazing work by Phaedra Mastrocola, a practicing artist and visual arts teacher at the Berkeley Carroll Lower School in Brooklyn. We caught up with Phaedra about how she’s been using, and putting her own unique spin on, the educational resources offered at MoMA.

SP: You told us that you’ve taken many of your students, mostly second- and fourth-graders, on school group tours of the MoMA galleries. What are some highlights of those experiences?

PM: My second-graders have seen several of the Picasso exhibitions at MoMA, including Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914. Our theme is primarily shape vs. form. We’ve studied his guitar constructions and found-object sculptures. We’ve considered how Picasso noticed that flat shapes can be bent and layered to create three-dimensional forms. Back at school, we created our own Picasso-esque guitar collages from brown construction-paper shapes.

Most recently this idea of shape and form has manifested as “Turkeys and Other Odd Birds,” a cardboard bird-sculpture project inspired by artist James Castle, whose work I first saw at the Reina Sofia on a trip to Madrid last summer.

Cardboard bird sculptures created by fourth-grade students at Berkeley Carroll Lower School in Brooklyn; the assignment, titled “Turkeys and Other Odd Birds”, was inspired the work of artists Pablo Picasso and James Castle

Cardboard bird sculptures created by second-grade students at Berkeley Carroll Lower School in Brooklyn; the assignment, titled “Turkeys and Other Odd Birds”, was inspired the work of artists Pablo Picasso and James Castle

SP: What exhibits and resources have you tapped into for teaching your fourth-graders?

PM: Fourth-graders study identity, self-expression, and consider the question, “What is a portrait?,” all year long. These are themes explored in the MoMA Learning lesson “The Modern Portrait.” We have looked at artists including Joseph Beuys, Frida Kahlo, Marcel Jean, Man Ray, Arman, and Nakanishi. Two art forms the fourth-graders have studied are assemblage and exquisite corpse drawings by the Surrealists. We were thrilled to be able to take advantage of the Exquisite Corpses: Drawing and Disfiguration exhibition last year, as well as MoMA Learning lessons about Surrealist objects and assemblage.

SP: Wow. “Exquisite corpses” and Surrealism—these are difficult topics to learn about at any age. What are some methods you can suggest for connecting younger people to these artworks?

PM: Well, first of all, Surrealism is cool! The paintings of Magritte and Dalí, for instance, are naturally appealing to kids’ sensibilities. I teach the “exquisite corpse” drawing game to third- and fourth-graders every year by having them fold a strip of paper in quarters and take turns drawing a head, chest, legs, and feet. It’s always a riot!

By fourth grade, when we study self-portraiture and identity, students are developmentally ready to comprehend how objects can represent other things. Projects I do with them like “Surrealist Landscapes” and “If I Were an Object” allow fourth-graders to experiment with ideas of symbolism and representation.

Artwork created by fourth-grade students at Berkeley Carroll Lower School in Brooklyn. From left: in response to the prompt “If I Were an Object”; For the “Surrealist Landscapes” assignment

Artwork created by fourth-grade students at Berkeley Carroll Lower School in Brooklyn. From left: in response to the prompt “If I Were an Object”; For the “Surrealist Landscapes” assignment

SP: Moving forward, how do you envision using the resources available on MoMA Learning?

PM: I’ve been using MoMA’s teaching resources since the beginning of my teaching career. A favorite of mine is MoMA’s interactive “What Is a Print?” tutorial. It was launched over a decade ago but still serves as a great teaching tool for the start of any printmaking unit. I’ve also seen that the MoMA Learning glossary features definitions of printmaking techniques like woodcut and lithography, the latter accompanied by two great process videos.

Since I became a MoMA Modern Teacher back in 2007, MoMA’s online resources have gained in both quality and quantity. As part of my teaching craft, I’m always researching new topics, sharpening up my art history facts, and thinking about new projects. But MoMA Learning has really done the work of organizing themes and developing ideas on modern art for us. I will certainly make a habit of visiting MoMA Learning and making use of its free, downloadable, and customizable resources before tackling new contemporary art topics in the future.

SP: In addition to being a teacher, you’re a practicing visual artist (and have a decade’s worth of experience in graphic design). How does your art practice inform your teaching?

"'Form' Drawing" activity sheet created by teacher Phaedra Mastrocola for her 2nd graders at Berkeley Carroll Lower School in Brooklyn

“‘Form’ Drawing” activity sheet created by teacher Phaedra Mastrocola for her second-graders at Berkeley Carroll Lower School in Brooklyn

PM: There’s no doubt that the work I do with my students is informed by my artistic interests and personal aesthetic. Mixed-media techniques and sculptural forms abound in our art studio. The projects we do are often based in abstraction—one because kids love it (and understand it better than most adults I know), but two because abstract art is not intimidating. Building confident artists means never letting children think there is only one way to draw a chair.

Even more importantly, what I strive to teach the kids is that art is a process. I guess what I do sort of naturally is take them through projects in the same way I might approach them. There is thinking involved, steps to take, and experimentation and discovery is paramount in making each project their own. The key is really ensuring that the kids are developmentally ready for the concepts I’m introducing and are able to manipulate the materials I provide them with. I am always tweaking, always trying to improve. Teaching art is certainly an art form all its own.

Comments

Awesome. PM is a great teacher!!!!! One of the best.

Phaedra is an extremely talented teacher! My daughter, Sophie, considers her “one of the best” at Berkeley Carroll. We are lucky to have her guiding and inspiring our children. She’s incredibly thoughtful and creative.

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